How to Fix Social Media??? An Open Forum for Discussion Here

Mobile Phone, Smartphone, App, Networks, Internet

In the last few years numerous films, books, research papers, and podcasts have been published on the problem with social media. I address some of this in my previous blog Why Social Media Can Be Such a Dumpster Fire but that blog only highlights some of the social difficulties of navigating platforms as an individual and why there is so much conflict.

Social media is creating and/or reinforcing massive problems in our society. So here I wanted to write something short and open a forum for discussion of how we could possibly fix these systems and make them work for us, rather than the other way around.

My background is an as anthropologist, but more specifically, my area of research during my time in graduate school focused heavily on media systems. I read quite a bit of literature and research and conducted some of my own (You can find the documentary version here) on the relationship between culture and media. However, I would hesitate to call myself an expert, especially on social media. So what I am going to do here is outline what I know, a few ideas I have, and then, hopefully in the comments below people can engage in some serious discussion or propose ideas. My ultimate goal is to gather some of the best ideas and hopefully create an open letter for public consideration. Perhaps we could send these letters to some of the heads of these platforms or even state or federal representatives and propose action. There is no doubt that we must address the problems on social media, because we know, pretty clearly now that some elements of these platforms are making our world a worse place to live. Like any good tool, we must learn to wield them wisely.

This is a bottom up approach, something that anthropologists called, collaborative methods. This is when you source the wider community to formulate questions and answers that people may not have considered.

How do you understand media systems?

The most helpful element of graduate school that included a large component of media research was that I learned how to ask better questions about media. Generally, there are three major sites of research in media (of course there are more but these three cover a lot). These sites also have their own power dynamics, politics, and are areas that shift culture and representation. These three areas are, Production, Distribution, Consumption.

  1. Production – The site of production is, where is the media or platform created. Who is making it? For what purpose? The entire production and post production side of media systems is all of this. Social media is less concerned with the production side of things, since most of the content isn’t produced on these platforms. That doesn’t mean how the platforms are built isn’t a concern though.
  2. Distribution – A large portion of the issue with social media platforms is distribution. There is some overlap here with production via algorithms, but algorithms are largely centered in the distribution side of things. You may have heard already how YouTube’s algorithms shifted a lot of people toward wild conspiracy theories and helped spread fake information like wildfire. They have corrected some of this but have a long way to go.
  3. Consumption – This is the site of consuming the media. What are they watching it on? How long are they watching? What habits do people have surrounding consumption? Do certain algorithms change consumption habits or not? Do people watch this stuff individually or do they share it with others? What makes something go viral? How do things like confirmation bias prevent people from consuming different viewpoints?

You can probably tell that these three sites of research have a lot of overlap, because well, creation of any medium is a cycle and creates all sorts of feedback loops, both positive and negative. Take algorithms for example. While algorithms determine what get’s distributed where (distribution), someone makes those algorithms (production) and then the viewers behavior (consumption) changes how the production and distribution cycle works. Over time these algorithms are refined to work better in both distribution and consumption. Better of course is a relative term here. If your goal is more revenue, that can create all kinds of problematic algorithms and is why YouTube accidently promoted massive amounts of conspiracy theory videos that had no basis in fact.

So why break it down? Because rather than tackling the whole system at once, it’s important for us to break down each site of research and understand the dynamics of each layer, so that when they are viewed as a whole they make more sense. It’s similar to how we learned how the human body works. We took it apart, analyzed it, and overtime our knowledge about how each organ functions in relation to one another.

So, I leave you with an approach (it may or may not be the best one) to try and think about these issues. I am going to make a few suggestions of my own here below for things I think would help move social media platforms in a new and better direction, but the point here is to source ideas from a variety of people with different backgrounds and disciplines so that we can come up with something collaboratively to solve this wicked problem.

My Ideas on Solutions:

  • Reinstitute the fairness doctrine and expand it to social media. The fairness doctrine was designed to make sure that all media exposes it’s viewers to a diversity of viewpoints on any topic. Air time had to be given in equal measure to conservative and progressive viewpoints (that is a bit of a simplication but go to the Wikipedia link above for more) forcing the viewer to consider several sides of each story. How could we do this on social media though? I think perhaps any article that is shared on social media, could have a required and connected article already attached to it from an opposing viewpoint. Is the article from fox news? Create a way so that an article on the exact same topic from MSNBC is sitting side by side with it, contrasting both headlines. This way the user and anyone who sees the shared post is required to see the different headlines from the different services. It can be incredibly illuminating to see two very different headlines on the same topic or event sitting next to each other, and it encourages critical thinking. Will many people dismiss the counter article? Sure, but what it does do is help those of us living in our bubbles to realize, there is a completely different way of thinking about the exact same set of facts. Facts are facts, but facts can also be understood from different viewpoints in quite a few cases. Showing different interpretations can at least give us pause and consider someone else’s viewpoint, even if we don’t agree with it.
  • Label Everything. I think a label could be created that sits at the top of every single news article regardless of the source. Blue could represent something that has good factual information. Yellow something that is opinion and needs fact checking. Red could be something that is clear and blatant misinformation. There should also be labels for satire (maybe purple?) as well and labels for blogs like this (perhaps gray) that are not as easy to evaluate because they don’t have a wide reach. Things that are difficult to evaluate could have a note above them saying, not vetted or evaluated for facts, until it is vetted. Labeling things might become annoying for a while, but using labels could help us understand what is good and bad information. Yes, some people will ignore it, but people might be more hesitant to share misinformation it is clearly labeled as misinformation.
  • Open the code for algorithms so people can see how they work and what they are doing. This one is tricky because a lot of these platforms are not interested in sharing their code. There are a lot of trade secrets and very likely, an attempt to force them will be met with a lot of pushback. That doesn’t mean that these platforms don’t need to be reined in and held accountable. I don’t believe that any of these platforms set out to do harm, but there does need to be social responsibility and accountability on these systems so they don’t hurt society. Why should we do this? Well this book Weapons of Math Destruction really helped me to understand how dangerous it is to keep coding closed. We need to understand how to refine and correct these algorithms so they don’t cause unintended harm.

Those are my three ideas for improving social media. Would they work? What do you think? The point here isn’t to throw up road blocks and say, well that would never get passed in congress or something similar. The point here is to brainstorm ideas for solutions. What solutions do you think would work? Let’s collaborate and see if we can take our ideas and make the world a little bit better. Even if we only improved things a little bit, it could have a massive impact on our culture and society. If we want things to get better, we have to try and tackle them. We can’t wait for people in charge to do something, we must find our own ways to source ideas and act. Be the change and all that right?

Please keep your comments and opinions respectful. I will moderate these comments. Differing viewpoints are very welcome (and frankly needed), but I will be sure to keep this a place of respect.

How to Understand Poverty (Resources and Science Based Evidence Here)

We live in a divided country. A lot of people think that this division is about progressive vs conservatives. But the reality of the situation is that perception is a mask for the real and primary dividing factor, wealth vs poverty.

There are an awful lot of narratives about what poverty means and relative poverty in our society. A lot of people think that the poor just aren’t saving well or that the government already spends too much on social safety nets. The problem is, these arguments are political folk tales, not based on science or evidence. The reality is so much more complicated than these simplistic arguments that surround our notions of economic purity.

What do I mean by purity? Well, consider this video surrounding how much of the western world breaks down it’s notions of right or wrong, black and white. Anthropology Shorts: Mary Douglas Purity and Danger

We like easy, clear categories, to oversimplify elements of life and society and reinforce that with notions of morality that manifest in guilt, shamming, gossip and of course media. These notions of either/or logic (known in some social sciences as a false dichotomy) prevent us from understanding the actual situation on the ground. This leads to something called, perceived truth vs ground truth.

Perceived vs Ground Truth

Perceived truth is what we think is happening, or what ideally is going to happen when we institute new policy or laws or ideas in the real world. Ground truth is when that plan, or policy, or cultural norm actually impacts the lived experiences of human beings. For example, the idiom, “A rising tide lifts all boats”, is a perceived truth that comes out of the 1980s in economics. It’s the idea of trickle down economics and neoliberalism, that if you deregulate economics, empower companies and increase privatization, everyone will benefit. This is a perceived truth. With more than four decades of these polices, the truth on the ground shows us something different (Check out this article on Why Trickle Down Economics Doesn’t Work). The lived experience of working people is much different than the claim. They have not benefitted from these policies and in fact just the opposite. The ground truth is, these policies hurt most Americans while lining the pockets of those already in power. In fact, we now have the highest rate of inequality since records began.

Social Mobility, The American Dream, and Bootstraps.

What about social mobility and the notion that, given hard work, someone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? The Bootstraps idea is another example of perceived truth, something that the media often touts via anecdotal evidence, that highlights the exception and not the rule. This is a media system that is largely owned by private firms, have a vested interested in continuing the narratives of the people who own them and fund them. Many of these big companies own a large portion of the media system and thus you have limited narratives that are available for people to consider. One of the creepiest examples of this concentration of media is the script that Sinclair forced about 200 of their local news broadcasts to read.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman highlighted the relationship between these narratives in the media and the control of what the media can say through five major filters in their famous book, Manufacturing Consent. The book examines the structure of large scale media. As it turns out, Media narratives actually make the situation of working people worse by casting perceived truth as a form of ultimate truth. Scholar Peter Drier highlights the problems of media systems and perceptions of poverty in his article, How Media Compounds Urban Problems and notes that the media often makes poverty worse by highlighting the exceptions and not the normal experiences of people on the ground. Narratives about welfare queens and troubled youth lead the news, while communities working together to solve issues or what it looks like to be poor are largely ignored. The job of the media is to hold those in power accountable, not to trumpet their narratives and further the suffering of the average citizen.

The thing about bootstraps is, not only is social mobility extraordinarily difficult, but it’s not even uniquely American. It turns out, that data doesn’t support that social mobility is as common in the United States as we think. Yes, there is an American Dream, but not only is it rare, but many of the other developed nations have much higher rates of social mobility, and much lower rates of inequality. Countries like Canada, have near double our social mobility. If your a podcast listener, Radiolab did a great job of breaking down the numbers on social mobility as well as debunking some of the myths surrounding poverty as well. Check it out here.

It’s expensive to be poor…

So often I hear, well if the poor were better at saving, then they wouldn’t be poor. The problem is, it’s expensive to be poor. You may have seen this meme going around social media at some point.

Is this perceived truth or ground truth? In this case we know it’s ground truth. That on the ground, it’s more expensive to be poor then middle class. This was very effectively demonstrated in the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The fact of the matter is, simple little things like not having a washer and dryer in your house mean that you have to spend more time and money to accomplish simple tasks. If it was just one of these things, it wouldn’t amount to much extra labor or expense, but as Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrates in her book, every Nickel and Dime adds up and adds to the weight of extra time and money that poor people have to spend. Living paycheck to paycheck isn’t just about saving, often it is impossible to actually put away money. In fact, nearly 40% of Americans are one emergency away from disaster and homelessness.

As a father, and even with a graduate degree, I’ve experienced events like this first hand. I have skipped meals to be sure my children eat. I’ve gone long periods of time without seeing a dentist or a doctor because I can’t afford it, which could cost me a lot more later (i.e. the meme above). I have to prioritize everything I do to figure out how to pay bills and keep food on the table. Many poor families are far more disciplined about money than I and working with communities and doing first hand research, I’ve notice that the idea the poor are lazy or unable to manage their money is not only false, it’s actively harmful. For example, when I was in graduate school, I was forced to dumpster dive for three months when I only had $1 a day for food after bills. The reality is, sometimes there is no way to save and even when you do, surprises happen and you suddenly find your savings drained because your car breaks down (because most poor people cannot afford a car that is newer and less likely to break down) or perhaps you get sick and can’t afford the copays because the insurance industry is all part of systemic poverty. Which leads to the next point…

Poverty as a System and Structural Violence

Poverty is a system, a structure in society that is not created on accident. It has little to do with a lack of work ethic or training and so much more to do with how the game is rigged.

Anthropologists introduced a concept called Structural Violence way back in the 1960s. It is the idea that systems of power do everything they can to maintain that power. Anthropologist Paul Farmer wrote a 2004 article titled An Anthropology of Structural Violence. In it, he details how altering history or hiding large portions of it, allow for the continuance of a system that significantly oppresses the people of Haiti. He shows that the large problems they have in arenas like health care are a direct result of wide systemic problems.

The reality of the situation is that the people of Haiti were purposely disenfranchised by the dominant European and American powers because their independence in 1804, came as a result of the a massive slave revolt. Wanting to make sure that their own slaves didn’t get any ideas, France, England, and the newly formed United States spent the next few decades (the United States still intervenes and did so for much of the cold war) intervening in the politics, economics and government of Haiti to ensure that it did not become a successful nation. Much of modern poverty is like this, it was created by those in power and is maintained by those in power. As I discussed in my YouTube video on the origin of the concept of Race, even the very notion that we have different races was created in the 17th century as a means to divide and conquer a diverse group of poor in the American colonies after Bacon’s Rebellion to prevent further uprising.

The original idea of the board game Monopoly was to teach people how these structures work. The linked article highlights the history of the game but also gives people a glimpse at what happens with deregulated greed. One player ultimately ends up controlling the board while everyone else struggles and eventually loses. Poverty is no accident, it’s a rigged game. Two books highlight real world poverty and why such insane levels of inequality are a terrible idea. The first Why We Can’t Afford the Rich draws on a mountain of academic research to demonstrate how these systems function and why philosophies like neoliberalism and libertarianism are actually dangerous for society and lead to economic collapse. The second book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism further explores these problematic assumptions about perceived truth vs ground truth and how this manifests around the world. If you are interested specifically in what happened when water became privatized you can read this article by Michael Goldman.

White Privilege Test (The Anti-Racist Educator Edition)

Poverty is no accident, it’s a structure. And while personal accountability is important the structure of a society can make change incredibly difficult for some, and much less for others. You may have seen this meme on the right traveling around the internet as well.

This meme is a simple and quick way to understand exactly how these systems work. Yes, hard work is a good thing. Yes, personal responsibility is a vital thing. But if the hardest working, most dedicated people in America were paid based on their work, it would be the janitors, the farmers, the construction workers, the teachers, and others like them who put all of their time and energy into the work who would do the best in society. We don’t really value a hard day of work, we value a false ideal of what work should look like and who is doing it. We are stuck in the perceived truth, the almost spiritual platonic forms of perception about work and wealth, and not what’s actually happening on the ground for the lived experience of many Americans. As long as we value perceived truth over real world evidence (and not anecdotes based on the extremes) we will face significant division and conflict. We must study and understand the structures of our society or risk further economic collapse and the suffering of many.

Suggested Films:

Inequality for All

Capital in the 21st Century (Netflix Original)

Inside Job